Thursday, 4 August 2016

Summer in the Bronze Age

The rough road from Jevington along the old Eastbourne Road up onto the top of Willingdon Hill begins in shade. I have all three dogs with me today, already half-worn out by a circular walk around Crowlink, and they seem grateful for the relief offered by the shade of the overhanging trees from the sun and gentle breeze. The landscape is peppered with ancient landmarks and, as the track emerges from the trees the landscape unfurls to reveal not only medieval and Roman workings, but Neolithic barrows and earthworks more than five thousand years old. Man and the soil have here been intertwined for 200 or more human generations.

The track is sunken as we make the gentle and steady uphill climb, excavated by centuries of grinding hooves, feet, cartwheels and rainwater, its run-off ferrying the powdered chalk, mud and stone sediment downhill in a greasy glut towards the village. Imagine the tons of spoil carried in its flow when the track is scoured clean during a deluge. The banksides are alive with flowers: bedstraws, vetches, knapweeds, hedge-parsley, wild carrot and hogweed. The air, despite the faint breeze, is filled with the scent of hogweed and, despite there being something reminiscent of the public convenience about it, the scent conjures deep-rooted memories of feral summer holidays. Hogweed is, to my nose, matched in its power to kindle memories only by the scent of wild privet. The wheat field to the left is bending its harvest head towards the farmer, the airy roar of his machinery now only a field or two distant, although the smell of straw as I pass has not yet lost its greenness. The top of the wheat field has been desecrated by a starry cluster of flowering sow-thistles, which have climbed their way above the crop and are now nodding ten thousand mocking suns upon the ears. The pattern of infiltration suggests the neighbouring hay field was cut late the previous year in a light easterly which sent the seed-heads gently foaming across the field boundary.

At the top of Willingdon Hill a circular mound marks the former location of a windmill; from here the view stretches south beyond Warren Hill towards Beachy Head. This crest of downland forms the eastern extent of the South Downs and its Way. The landscape is typical of the South Downs: a gently progressive rise from the sea until a crest is reached and then a dramatic escarpment to the north in which all progress from the sea is lost as it falls into the low Weald in no more than a few tens of metres, like a breaking wave frozen in time. The north-side escarpment here is wooded mainly with Ash. To the south the crest of the trees show the characteristic bare-bones of the Chalara Ash dieback, a chronic fungal disease caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, which has become more conspicuous this year. The bare, cresting canopies remind me of the withers of an old horse.

My route is to the north, where I shall follow the South Downs Way for a short distance before swinging back down towards Jevington. From the windmill mound Butts Brow is visible ahead of me and the Neolothic enclosure on Combe Hill just beyond and above it. This causewayed enclosure, which stands at the top of the escarpment, has tumuli to each side. These barrows once would have been tended to keep them clear of grass. The bare chalk would have glowed for miles across the Downs from clearings amongst the trees like stars in the night sky, each one a nova, a memory of a Neolithic woman or man whose star has waned, to be gazed upon by the string of descending generations. One of these barrows, when excavated, revealed a stone slab which, when lifted, revealed beneath it the remains of four broken bronze axe-heads. There is much debate about the function of hilltop enclosures. Archaeological remains of wooden post holes in some locations suggest a palisade fence which might just as likely have been intended to keep things within rather than out: summer-grazing livestock folded overnight within the sanctuary. This is, after all, an ancient-farmed landscape.

The land between Willingdon and Combe Hills is dry and harsh, flinty. A small murmuration of mainly juvenile starlings has been fidgeting from fence to field as we progress, troubled perhaps by our small party. A dance in several movements is enacted before we pass beyond them and onto softer terrain to the west. The land here is part of the Eastbourne Downland - land held in trust by the local authority. Tenant farmers work the land with sensitive grazing made only after the summer flowering period. Continuity of this practice over many decades has produced one of the finest wild flower meadows I have seen: countless species suddenly surround us - squinancywort, self-heal, eyebright, rock-rose, rest harrow, marjoram, wild thyme, hawkbits and hawks-beards, scabious, medick, clovers, arching spikes of agrimony, heathery bartsia, low-growing grasses, most of which are an enigma to me, but I think I can recognise quaking grass, some oat-grasses, cat's-tail (timothy), meadow-grass. How sad I was to learn the other day that this land has been put up for sale by the local council. It feels good to walk bare-foot across this good turf, the downs becoming ingrained into the contours of my feet - the connection with the land feels more complete; I feel earthed.

A few swifts are scything their way through the air above me, silent and making ready for their journey south. This year's fledglings will remain on the wing continuously for two years, when they are sexually mature. Two years of feeding and sleeping and everything on the wing! When they are ready, they will collect nest material, build it and even mate on the wing. The parson-naturalist Gilbert White, in his classic Natural History of Selbourne, speculated that swifts spend their winters beneath the sea. If these mysterious birds were seen to head out into the big blue and disappear into the horizon, perhaps this speculation was not as laughable as it may appear to the modern reader. I speculate myself whether White imagined a flying fish-like chimera, half bird, half fish, skimming the sea before delving beneath the waves, beneath the horizon, to spring forth into the air again ahead of the following year's bowsprit.

Close to Jevington village several lynchets form a Neolithic or Romano-British field system. These are the dominant landscape feature when viewed from the Eastbourne Road earlier in the walk. They show how the slope of the field was made less steep to enable less arduous cultivation. Scrub is now encroaching across the strips of land between the mounds. How long since they were last worked? The short foot-worn grass of the path above the lynchets is littered with ears of wheat, evidence that crows have been collecting their share of the harvest ahead of the farmer. One could be forgiven for thinking that children had plucked the tops and arranged them along the path. Only a tiny share of the wheat is taken and it saddens me that farmers feel the need to persecute these intelligent birds, even though they help the farmer at other times of the growing year by predating on crop and soil pests, as well as plundering other birds' nests for eggs and chicks. A farm between Rodmell and Southease shoots and strings-up dead corvids on stakes in a field by the roadside - a shocking sight, but a practise that has some effect because the crows do seem to take notice and feed elsewhere. Records of crow persecution are held in many parish churchwardens' accounts dating back to the first of the so-called Tudor Vermin Acts in 1532, although the killing undoubtedly stretches back way before grain was first protected by Royal decree, when not sharing the harvest while in the grip of the Little Ice Age could have reduced the likelihood of starvation, malnutrition and death.

Efforts to cull corvids never succeeded (intensive use of insecticides after 1945 was much more effective) and, to prove it, the local rookery now takes to the air before me in a wonderful cacophony: rooks and jacks wheeling up and around the church and back into the trees, with only a few breaking off in a sortie to pursue and harry the passing buzzard.

The noise settles to leave only the soft hush of ash leaves and the chatter of a charm of goldfinches, who usher me and three tired boys back through a hay-cut field, bearing on its fallen stems the empty pupal cases of fledged burnet moths, back from the Neolithic, through Romano-British and medieval, pagan and Christian, sacred and profane daydreams to Jevington - the jewel of these ancient downs.

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